Saturday, October 22, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story

George Orwell's 1984 holds a special place in my heart as both one of the few books my dad and I really bonded over when I was a teenager, and as the first novel I successfully taught during my first year of teaching English.  Dystopian fiction is hot among the YA set right now, so it's an easier "sell" in the classroom than ever, but even before Hunger Games-mania took over, there was always something about 1984 that seemed to resonate both with me and then with my students.  Between Winston Smith's undeniable humanity (and undeniable dorkiness) and the casual brutality of Big Brother, the novel "clicks" with teenagers.

That said, the teens I teach these days were born during the later years of the Clinton administration.  Even their parents were (unfortunately) sometimes just kids themselves in 1984.  The futuristic telescreens and memory holes Orwell invented for his novel back in the 1940's seems dated to a modern technology-obsessed teenager, and I've always wondered just what Orwell would have made of the Internet.  With Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, we no longer have to wonder--we know.  And it's brilliant.

Like Winston Smith, Lenny Abramov is a throwback to an earlier time--a man who floats along the current of society's expectations not because they particularly appeal to him, but because to do otherwise would be dangerous.  Lenny's story opens with his departure from a yearlong sojurn in Italy, where he ostensibly lived in order to promote his anti-aging company's products to the "HNWI" (High Net Worth Individual) Europeans.  Capitalism is king in America, which is a shame because, as Lenny arrives back home in New York, America is crumbling.  Unemployment and poverty are high, tent cities are beginning to spring up in Central Park, and the American government has gone begging at the feet of the Chinese National Bank for a bailout.  Sounds...familiar, yes?

One of the things that I found most engrossing about Super Sad True Love Story was how incredibly current it felt.  It came out only last year, so in some ways that's only to be expected, but between parallels to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements which the novel predates, that sense that Shteyngart was writing about the here and now becomes even more eerie with every passing day's headlines.

In any case, the "love story" of the title comes into play when a girl Lenny met briefly in Rome (and immediately decided he loved, much as Julia describes her love for Winston in 1984) comes to live with him in New York rather than go home to her abusive father in New Jersey.  The two do actually fall in love in spite of their differences, and yet their story ends, as most do, unhappily.

The whole time I was reading, I kept wishing that I could teach the novel to my high school students.  Even just Sheytngart's commentary on the role of the Internet in our lives, with every character (save Lenny himself) more obsessed with the screens of their aparaats than with the real people around them, could generate some really self-reflective conversations among teenagers who act as if they'll die if they aren't allowed to text during class.  The amount of graphic (and to some extent gratuitous, in my opinion) sex precludes me from being able to share it with my students, though. 

To you, however, I can freely recommend that you go out this very day and find Super Sad True Love Story.  It's easily one of the top three books I've read in 2011, and one that I will doubtless re-read many times in the years to come.  Enjoy!

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